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Thoughts to Ponder about the Spiritual Life

by John Henry Newman

by Ian Ker
in Newman in Being a Christian
Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN

Newman's idea of the spiritual life is characterized by his disparagement of the dramatic and exciting. The importance of stability is particularly stressed: "Be on your guard especially, when you get into novel situations or circumstances which interest and delight you, lest they throw you out of your regularity of prayer. Any thing new or unexpected is dangerous to you." The great danger is to become "unsettled," when "stability of mind is the chief of virtues, for it is Faith." Calmness, not excitement, is the hallmark of the mature Christian.

"To be excited is not the "ordinary" state of mind, but the extraordinary, the now and then state . . . . it "ought not" to be the common state of the mind; and if we are encouraging within us this excitement, this unceasing rush and alternation of feelings, and think that this, and this only, is being in earnest in religion, we are harming our minds, and (in one sense) I may even say grieving the peaceful Spirit of God, who would silently and tranquilly work His Divine work in our hearts."

Instead, we need to cultivate "still emotion, to calm us, to remind us what and where we are, to lead us to a purer and serener temper, and to that deep unruffled love of God and man.

The implication is that religious leaders, for example, are placed in a peculiarly invidious position that almost denies them the possibility of sanctity:

"There is a want of sympathy between much business and calm devotion, great splendour and a simple faith, which will be to no one more painful than to the Christian, to whom God has assigned some post of especial responsibility or distinction. To maintain a religious spirit in the midst of engagements and excitements of this world is possible only to a saint."

But far from inner calmness and tranquility signifying inactivity, "the calmer our hearts, the more active be our lives; the more zealous; the more unruffled, the more fervent."

The quiet rhythm of routine implies habits and, as we have seen, Newman emphasizes sharply this less than exciting aspect of the Christian life. Indeed, he goes so far as to define grace in terms of habit: "We do not know what we mean by a habit, except as a state or quality of mind "under" whch we ace in this or that particular way; it is a permanent power in the mind, and what is grace but this?" But whereas "grace was to [Adam] instead of a habit," fallen man has to gain it "by dint of exercise, working up towards it by religious acts." Our responsibility, then, is to make sure that we perform the right actions which will create the right habits: "We have power over our deeds . . . we have no direct power over our habits. Let us but secure our actions . . . and our habits will follow."